The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

In the galleries: A testament to Australia’s indigenous people, and to an artist

Michael B. Platt and Carol A. Beane. "Aussie Land Grab," pigment print on canvas. (Michael B. Platt and Carol A. Beane/American University Museum)

When local photographer and mixed-media artist Michael B. Platt died of a heart attack Jan. 20, it didn’t change the content of “Influences and Connections,” his exhibition with his wife, poet Carol A. Beane. But the American University Museum show, although not a retrospective, did become a sort of summation.

Platt, who taught for more than 40 years at Northern Virginia Community College and Howard University, was a D.C. native. In recent years, his imagination was sparked by the culture of a people who could hardly live farther away: Australia’s Aboriginal people. Platt’s photo-collages superimpose bodies, often nude and painted with symbols, so they appear to merge into the landscape. Ancient totems, inscribed in white on brown skin, signify heritage and ritual.

The show includes an installation in which three figures stand amid dried vegetation and the outlines of small houses. The bulk of the pieces, though, are computer-tweaked pictures whose vivid motifs come from body adornment and fabric design. Individual portraits focus on dancers, musicians and storytellers; group compositions are often layered multiple images of the same person. A single figure becomes a multitude, representing ancestors or descendants.

Beane’s verse includes references to “stolen children” and “lost ones,” part of the bitter history of Australia’s indigenous population. But Platt’s images, which fuse traditional culture and contemporary technology, have a celebratory tone. This last testament exalts earth, flesh and survival.

Around the corner from Platt and Beane’s show, “Nancy at Ninety” salutes another longtime local artist, Nancy Frankel. The selection features a few drawings and paintings but is mostly sculpture in metal, wood, clay or cast acrylic. The gravity-defying constructions appear, with rare exceptions, more geometric than organic. Yet they’re seldom austere.

Frankel’s silvery steel pieces recall the style of mid-20th-century abstract sculptors such as David Smith. But most of the pieces are painted in bright, neatly contrasting colors that highlight the individual forms: orbs, cubes and pyramids arranged in space rather like circles, squares and triangles might appear on a two-dimensional canvas. While Frankel has a flair for the three-dimensional, her juggling of colors and shapes suggests painting in space.

Sculpture, mostly starker than Frankel’s, is one of the two principal components of “The Gifts of Tony Podesta,” which occupies most of the museum’s top two floors. The works in this array were collected by Podesta and later donated to the Corcoran Gallery; they became the AU Museum’s property after that institution was disassembled.

Most of the 3-D works are minimalist, reticent and immaculately made. Typical are Barbara Liotta’s curtain of hanging stones; Janaina Tschape’s pair of water balloons in a suitcase; Katja Strunz’s angular, vaguely aerodynamic wall piece; and two leaning vertical columns by Gyan Panchal. Even Jone Kvie’s large rendering of a mushroom cloud is sleek and shiny. A notable exception is Ann-Sofi Siden’s bronze of a urinating woman. The piece, a working fountain, is a parody of heroic public sculpture, and also a self-portrait.

Siden’s statue is on the third floor, where the edgier Podesta-collected works are grouped. There’s much nudity on display, mostly in photographs of women made by women. Like the sculpture, the photos tend to be suave and chic, often with an advertising-industry aesthetic.

A dominant theme of the show’s photography is female self-image: In a Margi Geerlinks picture, a girl ponders her future body by trying on a crocheted breast; in a series by Mwangi Hutter (the team of Ingrid Mwangi and Robert Hutter), a woman disappears into another’s woven hair. The duo also updates a propaganda photo of Hitler surrounded by adoring Nordic women, replacing them with multiples of the brown-skinned Mwangi. As in Platt’s collages of indigenous Australians, repeated images of the same figure create a sense of multiplicity and oneness.

The AU Museum was given nearly 9,000 objects from the Corcoran. The Kreeger received only a few, five of which are on display in “Recent Gifts from the Corcoran Gallery of Art.” Rather than show them separately, the museum has mixed them with artworks it already owned, and with which they fit well.

The highlights are all 1960s pieces by women: Ann Truitt’s “Essex,” a painted pillar in an unusually dark black-and-brown scheme; Joan Mitchell’s thickly impastoed abstraction, an untitled work that suggests a floral still life; and Helen Frankenthaler’s “Signal Flag,” which unfurls fields of stained green and brown. Frankenthaler’s technique was an essential precursor to Washington color painting, so it’s apt that this canvas currently hangs above the stairs that lead to a lower-level gallery that holds work by D.C. colorists Gene Davis, Sam Gilliam and Paul Reed.

Michael B. Platt + Carol A. Beane: Influences and Connections; Nancy at Ninety: A Retrospective of Form and Color; The Gifts of Tony Podesta Through March 17 at the American University Museum, Katzen Arts Center, 4400 Massachusetts Ave. NW. Recent Gifts From the Corcoran Gallery of Art Through March 18 at the Kreeger Museum, 2401 Foxhall Rd. NW.

Jowita Wyszomirska

Hiking on the Root Glacier in Alaska’s Wrangell St. Elias National Park, Jowita Wyszomirska was in a world of white, framed by the blue of water and sky. Then the Baltimore artist returned home to make the drawing-paintings of “The Distance of Blue.” Mixed in media and technique, the artworks both document and stylize natural vistas.

As in Wyszomirska’s previous show at Gallery Neptune & Brown, the centerpiece is an installation in which paintings achieve a sculptural presence. “Water Memory” is partly overlapping plastic sheets, some clear and the others milky. The pen and brushstrokes on the ones that hit the floor evoke glaciers; the markings on the ones that hang higher suggest clouds.

The artist works mostly in shades of ice and water, with some touches of brownish red. She draws areas of tightly parallel black-ink lines set off by drips of blue and gray pigment. The watery gestures refer to the liquidity of memory, but also to the retreat of ice throughout the world. Some titles include geographic coordinates, to remind us that the glacier is real, for now. Wyszomirska’s pictures appear fluid and fragile, but they might outlast their inspiration.

Jowita Wyszomirska: The Distance of Blue Through March 9 at Gallery Neptune & Brown, 1530 14th St. NW.